Disability Pedagogy & Accessibility

The most recent data indicates that 19% of all enrolled undergraduate students reported having some type of disability (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). The characteristics of those disabilities include deafness or serious difficulty hearing; blindness or serious difficulty seeing; serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition; or serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs (Postsecondary National Policy Institute, 2021). Students are protected by state and federal laws if they have documentation regarding these disabilities, but many students don’t have this documentation. Higher education classrooms must be proactively responsive to the needs of all students with disabilities who are navigating the college environment. 

This module offers resources and specific strategies for educators to understand the philosophy behind disability pedagogy which strives to illuminate invisible barriers to learning. Proactively learning how to apply accessibility strategies for coursework can reduce or eliminate these barriers, providing access for all students with disabilities. This approach also reduces the need for students with disabilities to advocate for themselves, which can be an exhausting and vulnerable endeavor. With this in mind, we invite you to explore the resources on this page and incorporate many of the suggested approaches into your teaching practices.

This article covers: 


Teaching Tools

Supportive Resources 



What is Disability Pedagogy?

Disability pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that recognizes and addresses barriers to access encountered by students with disabilities in higher education classrooms. Understanding the history behind the disability justice movement helps to eradicate stereotypes about disabled students as an extra burden on the system, and deficit-minded thinking which leads faculty to believe that these students demand special favors and should just work harder to succeed without accommodation (Friedman & VanPuymbrouck, 2021).  
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, after many years of lobbying by disability activists for a broad civil rights statute that would protect the rights of people with disabilities, much like the 1964 Civil Rights Act had achieved for Black Americans (Anti-Defamation League report, 2018). The intention of this political movement was to shift public perception of disability as being located within a person, in need of medical intervention or cure, which is commonly referred to as the “medical model of disability” to perceiving disability as a result of socially created barriers to participation, which is referred to as the “social model of disability” (Beaudry, 2016; Friedman & VanPuymbrouck, 2021).  
In the United States, 26% of adults have some type of disability (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). On college campuses, it is estimated that 19% of all undergraduate students need academic accommodations for disabilities, which does not take into account the number of students who cannot afford the diagnosis process to receive such accommodations (Postsecondary National Policy Institute, 2021). Given this data, more work needs to be done to illuminate how higher education classrooms exacerbate differences between students through differential access to certain types of curriculum (Lambert & Tan, 2017). 
Faculty who incorporate disability pedagogy strive to surface their biases about disability, acknowledge their able-bodied privilege and proactively create open access to their content, class activities and assessments (Freedman et al, 2019). They recognize and take responsibility that limited access to the course curriculum can cause equity gaps in performance between disabled students and able-bodied students. They strive to illuminate the myth of a normalized, ideal body or mind to which all people should conform, creating classroom norms that prevent the use of language (such as “handicapped” or “crazy”) that could contribute to the negative stigma of disability (Reinholz & Ridgeway, 2021). 


The definitions provided below for common disability language were pulled from multiple resources: the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Disability Authority (NDA), the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), The National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Please feel free to use the Contact form on the Inclusivity home page to suggest revisions or additions to this list.



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    This has been a commonly used word to describe people who do not have a disability. The disability community opposes the use of this term because it implies that all people with disabilities lack “able bodies” or the ability to use their bodies well. They prefer “non-disabled” or “person without a disability” as being more accurate (adapted from the NCDJ Disability Language Style Guide). 

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    “Ableism” refers to discriminatory behavior and social prejudice that assumes a lesser status for people with a disability and/or that people with disabilities should have less personal autonomy. Ableism can display in many forms, from overt prejudice to more subtle microaggressions (adapted from the NCDJ Disability Language Style Guide). 

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    Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) 

    ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is a relatively common neurodevelopmental diagnosis. Symptoms include restlessness, difficulty in focusing or staying organized and impulsivity. Those with an ADHD diagnosis may also exhibit difficulty sitting still or engaging in quiet activities (adapted from the NCDJ Disability Language Style Guide and CDC). 

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    Autism spectrum disorder

    Autism spectrum disorder is a group of complex disorders related to brain development. Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. Common symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include difficulties in communication, impaired social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities (adapted from NIMH and the NCDJ Disability Language Style Guide).

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    Bipolar disorder 

    Bipolar disorder is a mental illness believed to be caused by a combination of genetic factors and neurological functioning, causing unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.  Bipolar disorder often develops during late adolescence or early adulthood (adapted from NIMH and the NCDJ Disability Language Style Guide). 

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    Total blindness is the complete lack of perception of either light or form. However, only about 15% of those with eye conditions are totally blind. “Legally blind” describes someone with 20/200 visual acuity or lower. However, some people identify as blind even though they do not meet these definitions because they feel an affinity with the blind community. Other terms may include low vision, partially sighted and visually impaired. Assistive technology is important to support those with  blindness (adapted from the NCDJ Disability Language Style Guide).

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    Chronic disease/chronic illness 

    Chronic diseases are broad definitions, both in terms of condition and length of time of the condition. Typically, chronic diseases have a duration of one year or more, and they require ongoing medical attention and limited activities of daily living (adapted from CDC). Long-term COVID health impacts are currently being studied and are not well understood.

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    The term “deaf” can include people with some or no hearing. A lowercase d when writing in literature about deafness, indicates the audiological condition of not hearing. The capitalized word “Deaf” indicates the cultural and linguistic community. Deaf people are proud of their identity as a cultural and linguistic group and do not see it as an impairment, and therefore do not use the term “hearing impaired” (adapted from NDA and NAD).

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    Depression is a common serious mood disorder which can be caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. It is characterized by a loss of interest in activities, persistent fatigue, difficulty in concentrating and making decisions, prolonged feelings of emptiness or hopelessness, and abnormal eating habits (adapted from NIMH and the NCDJ Disability Language Style Guide).

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    Dyslexia is a type of learning disability that impairs a person’s ability to read. People with dyslexia have difficulties with spelling, reading, pronunciation of words and processing auditory information. Dyslexia is inherited or can be the result of a brain injury (adapted from NIMH and the NCDJ Disability Language Style Guide).

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    Dysgraphia is a learning disability which causes a person's writing to be distorted or incorrect. In children, the disorder generally emerges when they are first introduced to writing. Cases of dysgraphia in adults generally occur due to damage to the parietal lobe of the brain. In addition to poor handwriting, dysgraphia is characterized by wrong or odd spelling, and production of words that are not correct (adapted from NIMH).

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    Dyspraxia is a disorder which exhibits symptoms such as the inability to plan and carry out sensory and motor tasks. Symptoms may include poor balance and coordination, clumsiness, vision problems, perception difficulties, emotional and behavioral problems, difficulty with reading, writing, and speaking, poor social skills, poor posture, and poor short-term memory (adapted from NIMH).

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    Learning disability 

    Learning disabilities are neurologically based conditions that affect how well a person can read, write, speak, do math, and handle other similar tasks. Having a learning disability, or even several disabilities, isn’t related to intelligence. In many cases, there are interventions—treatments—that can help a person with learning disabilities read, write, speak, and calculate just as well or better than someone without these disabilities (adapted from NIMH and the NCDJ Disability Language Style Guide).

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    Mental illness

    Mental illness is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder and can range in impact from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment. Many different conditions can affect how individuals act, think, feel or perceive the world. The most common forms of mental illness are anxiety disorders, mood disorders and schizophrenia disorders (adapted from NIMH and the NCDJ Disability Language Style Guide). Mental illness frequently has a negative stigma; however, taking care of one's mental wellness and mental health is imperative to taking care of one's physical health.


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    Neurodiversity refers to how natural variety in brain structures and functions impacts our human experiences. There are a lot of negative stigmas surrounding disabilities, including invisible disabilities like ADHD, dyslexia, and Autism. Viewing disabilities as neurodiversity highlights our differences in thinking and learning, rather than looking at them as deficits (written by the Neurodiversity Resource Group at DU)

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    Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

    Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder usually caused by an extremely emotional traumatic event, either experienced personally or witnessed. Such events may include, but are not limited to:  assault, war, sexual assault, natural disasters, car accidents or imprisonment. Symptoms may include physical symptoms, negative emotions, reliving the traumatic event, negative emotions and/or avoidance of certain places, events and specific thoughts (adapted from NIMH and the NCDJ Disability Language Style Guide).


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    Traumatic brain injury (TBI) 

    A traumatic brain injury, or TBI, is an injury that affects how the brain works. Symptoms of mild TBI include headache, confusion, lightheadedness, dizziness, blurred vision or tired eyes, ringing in the ears, bad taste in the mouth, fatigue or lethargy, a change in sleep patterns, behavioral or mood changes, and trouble with memory, concentration, attention, or thinking.  A person with a moderate or severe TBI may show these same symptoms, but may also have a headache that gets worse or does not go away, repeated vomiting or nausea, convulsions or seizures, an inability to awaken from sleep, dilation of one or both pupils of the eyes, slurred speech, weakness or numbness in the extremities, loss of coordination, and increased confusion, restlessness, or agitation (adapted from CDC and NIH).

Key Takeaways

Inclusive language is important when talking to or about someone with a disability. Using terms like “differently abled”, “special needs” and “challenged” to describe students with disabilities reinforces the medical model in which the disabled person is a problem or challenge in the classroom (Brown, 2013; Cook-Campbell, 2021), instead of addressing that there are access barriers in most classrooms.  An equity-minded approach would focus on centering the voices and ideas of disabled students. If students are sharing with you that they have disabilities, ask them how they speak about their disability, what language feels inclusive to them and how they would like to be addressed in terms of their disability.

Disabilities may not be physically apparent. It is also important to consider that there are a variety of reasons that students may go undiagnosed with a disability, such as: not having funding to complete proper assessments which can be costly, cultural stigma in seeking out support for a specific disability/diagnosis and/or language, transportation, or technology barriers (Gopalkrishnan, 2018). 

Many students may be completing their classes without any formal diagnosis or disability on file with the Disability Services Program. Aiming to make your classroom accessible is important so students who have disabilities will be able to access the course material as effectively as their peers in the class. Universal Design for Learning principles supports students who do not have a formal diagnosis or apparent physical disability.

Students may not choose to disclose their disability to faculty or the Disability Services Program. They may not know they have a disability, they may have developed strategies for learning, they might not be aware of the Disability Services Program and the services they provide,  and they may have experienced a stigma from disclosing their disability.  

Some students may have more than one disability, which is why it's important to focus on making your course accessible for all and providing reasonable accommodations for an inclusive classroom, rather than focusing on the disabilities themselves. Please visit our Inclusive Teaching Practice page on bringing Universal Design for Learning principles to your course design.

What is Accessibility? 

Accessibility addresses the idea that all students should be able to access the same information in the course environment without facing undue barriers. When course material is accessible, all students can access them as-is without requiring individual support. Accessibility can also be used to describe a space where all individuals can fully participate. In order to design such a space, a broad definition of access needs must be considered (Reinholz & Ridgeway, 2021) such as: 

  • ASL interpretation
  • wheelchair access
  • screen reader compatibility
  • opportunity to stand up and stretch 
  • access to gender-neutral restrooms
  • eating during a meeting
  • transparent and clear language
  • breaks between meetings

To determine access needs for students, one can develop an accessibility survey to disseminate before the semester begins. Also, include your students in creating norms for participation in your course.

Digital Accessibility refers to the inclusive practices of ensuring online content is accessible for people with disabilities, specifically for individuals who utilize assistive technology to access online information. The web is a place that should be accessible to individuals with disabilities; however, without creating accessible content online, it can also prevent students with disabilities access to content they need. It has the potential to revolutionize their daily lives by increasing their ability to independently access information, communication, entertainment, commerce, and other aspects of life that other people take for granted (adapted from WebAIM).

When digital accessibility is being addressed, content creators are following the most up-to-date recommendations from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1). By following these guidelines, you can make content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities. These guidelines address the accessibility of web content on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. Following these guidelines will also often make Web content more usable to all users in general. There are four main guiding principles of accessibility upon which WCAG has been built. These four principles are known by the acronym POUR: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (adapted from WebAIM). 


Overthinking is one enemy of disability etiquette, but so is making assumptions about what a person wants and needs. Of course disabled people want to be treated like everyone else, but when we say that, we don’t mean “treat every person exactly the same”. We mean “recognize our humanity and meet us where we’re at."
Kyle Khachadurian, The Accessible Stall podcast
campus in spring

Teaching Tools

Course Design Strategies

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Consider Accessibility of the Classroom Environment

  • As you investigate the accessibility of your classroom environment (in person, online, hybrid and hyflex), you may want to explore the Courses & Opportunities offered from the OTL to learn more about accessibility and design of your classroom experiences.
  • For the virtual or hybrid classroom experiences, visit the OTL Resources for Teaching from a Distance, Using Zoom in Canvas and the Zoom Accessibility Checklist
  • For the physical classroom, consider your lighting, space, and accessible entrances. If you encounter an accessibility issue or barrier — such as an inoperable door, an elevator problem or a blocked pathway — please report the problem to the ADA Coordinator at ADA.Coordinator@du.edu.
  • It is important to share your required coursebooks with the DU Bookstore by the due date! Consider choosing a coursebook available in e-textbook or utilizing Open Educational Resources to improve accessibility and affordability for your students. E-textbooks can be particularly helpful for students with the Alternate Format Text (AFT) accommodation or students who use assistive technology to access their readings. Check out resources such as VitalSource and RedShelf to see if your coursebook is available! 
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Implement Educational and Assistive Technologies

  • Using educational technologies not only increases participation, engagement, and collaboration, but also allows for sharing accessible content with your students. Visit the OTL Teaching with Technologies page to learn more about what types of educational technologies you may consider adding to your course! 
  • Assistive Technologies, such as Kurzweil3000, can be utilized to support students in the development of their individual learning and skills. Kurzweil 3000 is a comprehensive reading, writing, and learning software solution to assist individuals with learning differences, phonological processing, awareness, vocabulary development, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Kurzweil 3000 is a tool that centers Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as it was designed to accommodate all types of learners, whether it is international students, students with accommodations or simply students who would like to use all available resources at their disposal. Kurzweil3000 is available to all DU faculty, staff, and students. Check out the OTL Knowledge Base Kurzweil3000 article to learn more about gaining access for you and your students. 
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Review Accessibility of Course Materials

  • It is important to share your required coursebooks with the DU Bookstore by the due date! Consider choosing a coursebook available in e-textbook or utilizing Open Educational Resources to improve accessibility and affordability for your students. E-textbooks can be particularly helpful for students with the Alternate Format Text (AFT) accommodation or students who use assistive technology to access their readings. Check out resources such as VitalSource and RedShelf to see if your coursebook is available! 
  • A common way to share course readings with students is through PDF scans. Poor quality scans, such as scans with poor resolution or text running of the page are not accessible. Visit the OTL Knowledge Base Article to answer the question Are your PDFs Accessible?” It is especially important to ensure that you have accessible PDFs, Microsoft Word, and Powerpoint files for students who use screen readers or utilize assistive technologies for text to speech (TTS) access.  Visit the different resources below for accessibility checkers to learn more: 
  • It is helpful to caption your videos in advance to support all learners with access, which can benefit students with specific disabilities, students who speak different languages, and multi-modal learners. Check out the OTL Knowledge Base articles on Captioning in Kaltura and auto-captions on Zoom.  Students who need live captioning for class are responsible for requesting captions through the DSP Communication Access Request Form.
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Utilize a Canvas Course Accessibility Checker  

  • Your online course should follow the principles of POUR: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. It is helpful for students to interact with your Canvas course in a logical, well organized fashion. Using an Easy-To-Navigate Canvas Template can establish a unified and organized look for your Canvas course.
  • UDOIT Cloud is a course-wide accessibility checker integrated with Canvas from CIDI Labs that can help guide you through enhancing the POUR principles in your course. The UDOIT tool scans your Canvas course, generates a report of accessibility issues that could impact students ability to learn, and provides resources and suggestions for addressing the issues. Visit the OTL Knowledge Base article on UDOIT and the Canvas Accessibility Checklist to learn more!  



“I wish for a world that views disability, mental or physical, not as a hindrance but as unique attributes that can be seen as powerful assets if given the right opportunities.” 

- Oliver Sacks, neurologist, naturalist, and author

Frequently Asked Questions

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Supportive Resources


Recommended Online Resources

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Academic Ableism

Academic Ableism brings together disability studies and institutional critique to recognize the ways that disability is composed in and by higher education, and rewrites the spaces, times, and economies of disability in higher education to place disability front and center.


Link to Book
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Spoon Theory

Christine Miserandino developed “Spoon theory” to explain how those with chronic illness have limited daily energy reserves and must choose carefully how to navigate their activities.

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Centering Students and Disrupting Ableist Norms in STEM

This essay describes the concept of access needs as a tool for improving accessibility in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education broadly, from the classroom, to research group meetings, to professional conferences.


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Special Contribution 

The following people helped to design, build and edit this page:

  • Ellen Hogan (she/her) Accessibility Technologist for Learning and Instruction
  • Eileen Fair (she/her) Accommodations Specialist in Disability Services Program
  • Bill Casson (he/him) Digital Accessibility Specialist, Information Technology
  • References

    Anti-Defamation League (ADL). (2018). “A Brief History of the Disability Rights Movement”. (2018) Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Report

    Beaudry J. S. (2016). Beyond (Models of) Disability?. The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 41(2), 210–228. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmp/jhv063

    Brown, L.X.Z. (2013, August) “How ‘Differently Abled’ Marginalizes People”. Autistic Hoya. https://www.autistichoya.com/2013/08/differently-abled.html

    Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). “Disability Impacts All of Us”.  https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html

    Cooks-Campbell, A. (2021, June 18th) “Why you shouldn’t use ‘differently abled’ anymore”. Better Up. https://www.betterup.com/blog/differently-abled

    Friedman, C., & VanPuymbrouck, L. (2021). “Support for the Americans with Disabilities Act among nondisabled people”. Journal of Disability Policy Studies. Advanced online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/10442073211023175  

    Freedman, J., Applebaum, A., Woodfield, C. & Ashby, C. (2019) “Integrating Disability Studies Pedagogy in Teacher Education”. Journal of Teaching Disability Studies. https://jtds.commons.gc.cuny.edu/integrating-disability-studies-pedagogy-in-teacher-education/

    Gopalkrishnan N. (2018). Cultural Diversity and Mental Health: Considerations for Policy and Practice. Frontiers in public health, 6, 179. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2018.00179

    Lambert, Rachel, & Tan, P. (2017). "Conceptualizations of Students with and without Disabilities as Mathematical Problem Solvers in Educational Research: A Critical Review" Education Sciences 7(2): 51. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci7020051 

    Postsecondary National Policy Institute. (2021). “Students with Disabilities in Higher Education”. https://pnpi.org/about/

    Reinholz. D.L. & Ridgway, S.W. (2021) “Access Needs: Centering Students and Disrupting Ableist Norms in STEM”. CBE Life Sciences Education. 20(3): https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.21-01-0017

    Web Accessibility in Mind. (2021). “Constructing a POUR Website”. https://webaim.org/articles/pour/